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Could Denglisch one day kill off German?

From being heard in coffee shops to popular TV programmes, "Denglisch" is being used more and more across the country. But is it threatening to kill off German? A linguist sheds light on the phenomenon.

Could Denglisch one day kill off German?
Denglisch was already in use in 2007 at a cafe in Frankfurt. Photo: DPA

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Spend a day in central Berlin and you might begin to wonder what the official language is. There will be the coffee shop with a sign proclaiming “We accept Sofortüberweisung,” or young Germans on the U-Bahn who say “Oh nice!” when hearing about the “highlight” rather than the Höhepunkt of a friend’s weekend. Then they might grumble that a concert got gecancelt.

Is Denglisch becoming so ubiquitous that it is causing the German language itself to go extinct? Not exactly, Free University of Berlin linguistics researcher Dr. Britta Schneider tells The Local.

Rather, it’s causing the language to evolve, bringing in more English words and phrases that simply become part of the Deutsch vocabulary after a while. This causes the original German words to either be used very sparingly, informally or not at all.

Now Germans will say computer rather than Rechner, even though they are aware of the latter word’s meaning. A word like Baby will take the place of Säugling, which might only be used in medical literature describing infants.

And there are some words that most Germans themselves don’t know once carried a very different equivalent, such as Leibesertüchtigung for sport (the word sport was introduced to the German language over 150 years ago by a prince after his trips to England and Ireland).

The phenomenon of Denglisch is not just limited to Berlin, but even the smallest of villages in Germany thanks to TV and media, says Schneider. Commonly it is the media and advertising that introduces Denglisch phrases, or popular TV shows such as Germany’s Next Topmodel.

Nowadays on TV talk shows when someone speaks in English – including the increasing number of foreigners who make an appearance on them – their speech is often not translated.

German TV uses, and often introduces, many Denglisch words and phrases. Photo: DPA

In some fields, such as academia and marketing, Anglicisms are becoming so widely thrown around that they are replacing the original German – sometimes without the knowledge of those who use them .“These days many people don’t notice if they’re speaking English or not,” says Schneider.

SEE ALSO: Germans love English adverts – but don’t understand them

Getting back to the roots

For decades, a prime usage of Denglisch in Deutschland has been “Sale,” yet even now it’s possible to see its German equivalent of Schlussverkauf advertised in stores.

Such usage of an old German phrase in favour of a more modern one is often done for ideological reasons, or as a way to protest the growing use of English, says Schneider. “Sometimes German will be used for purism, for getting back to one’s roots,” the linguistics expert adds.

There have long been attempts to preserve the German language, keeping intact the use of distinctly Deutsch words. In 2001, Christian Democratic (CDU) politician Eckart Werthebach drafted a law for the protection of German, similar to one that already exists in France, where even Internet has its own uniquely French translation.

Only last year, CDU politician Jens Spahn notoriously complained about the use of English at hipster-driven Berlin coffee shops, saying it excludes people who don’t know the language well or are trying to integrate better into German culture.

Companies as well have protested the growing use of Denglisch, with Deutsche Bahn introducing a handbook for its employees on the correct German terms to use, so as not to isolate any customers or make them feel uncomfortable. Employees were instructed to use Handzettel instead of flyer, and Service-Nummer instead of hotline.

A sale at a department store in Berlin is just one long-time use of Denglisch. Photo: DPA

The spread of Denglisch grammar

The influence of English does not just shift the vocabulary, but also the structure of German, says Schneider. For example, instead of “Weil ich in die Stadt gegangen bin,” Germans – even in official contexts such as TV – may say, “Weil ich bin in die Stadt gegangen.” Still, the use of this incorrect grammar is stigmatized and usually not done on purpose, says Schneider.

English structure is also woven into German through so-called “calque”, a linguistics term for a loan translation. Words and phrases which once made little sense in German will also find their way into the language, including “Das macht Sinn,” rather than the original “Das ergibt Sinn.” When describing years, Germans furthermore used to say “im Jahr 2018” whereas nowadays they will often express the year similar to in English, saying “in 2018.”

In English, people have long nodded their heads while saying, “I see” to connote understanding. But only recently did “Ich sehe” become used in German among youth. If unfamiliar with the phrase, Germans might wonder what exactly the other person is seeing.

Teenagers will also toss out common constructions in English such as “Oh mein Gott!” which previously would have only taken on a literal meaning in German. When Schneider heard children say the phrase, she thought to herself, ‘We didn’t teach our children to be religious.’

READ ALSO: 10 German words becoming extinct thanks to English

English in work, German at play

Still, German is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and, as such, unlikely to disappear altogether, says Schneider. Yet in some settings she envisions English becoming the official language at universities and workplaces, while German will remain the language of the private sphere, spoken among friends and families.

In some academic fields such as natural sciences and engineering, it is already expected that researchers only pen their papers in English, posing a disadvantage to non-native speakers. “It’s unfair that the publisher expects us to pay for a professional native speaker to edit the published text,” says Schneider.

Yet English education in Germany is becoming better and better, and it’s now expected that anyone with a university degree has the language of the Bard under their belt.

That’s why speaking English is no longer advertised as a requirement for many jobs, particularly in Marketing, as it’s already assumed that a uni-educated applicant will speak it fluently, says Schneider.

The linguistics researcher noticed a greater push-back against Denglisch a decade ago, when there was much less of it than today. But now more and more people are embracing it as a “modern and successful” way of speaking – while still continuing to keep their mother tongue alive.

Denglisch users are simply dabbling in a new vocabulary, she says. “Boundaries between language are socially constructed. Linguists might say that we’re not using different languages, but different repertoires.”

SEE ALSO: Why some foreigners live in Germany without mastering the language

Member comments

  1. I remember the howls of laughter from German friends years ago when I use the words “Fernsprecher” and “Fernseher.”

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For members


10 ways to express surprise in German

From woodland fairies to whistling pigs, the German language has a colourful variety of phrases to express surprise.

10 ways to express surprise in German

1. Alter Schwede!

You may recognise this phrase from the cheese aisle at the supermarket, but it’s also a popular expression in Germany for communicating surprise. 

The phrase, which means “old Swede” comes from the 17th century when King Frederick William enlisted the help of experienced Swedish soldiers to fight in the Thirty Years’ War.

Because of their outstanding performance in battle, the Swedish soldiers became popular and respected among the Prussians, and they were respectfully addressed as “Old Swede”. Over the last three hundred years, the phrase developed into one to convey awed astonishment. 

READ ALSO: German word of the day – Alter Schwede

2. Holla, die Waldfee!

This curious expression literally means “Holla, the wood fairy”. It can be used both as an exclamation of astonishment and to insinuate that something is ridiculous.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK.

Engraving of a fairy in the picnic park in Enfield in the UK. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/dpa-tmn | Mareike Graepel

There are various explanations as to how the forest fairy made it into the German lexicon. Some say that it comes from the Grimm’s fairy tale “Frau Holle,” while others say it comes from an old song called “Shoo, shoo, the forest fairy!”

READ ALSO: 10 words and phrases that will make you sound like a true German

3. Das ist ja ein dicker Hund!

Literally meaning “that is indeed a fat dog!” this expression of surprise presumably originates from a time in the past when German dogs were generally on the thinner side.

4. Ich glaube, ich spinne!

The origin of this expression is questionable, because the word “Spinne” means “spider” and also “I spin”. Either way, it’s used all over Germany to mean “I think I’m going crazy” as an expression of surprise.

5. Ich glaube, mein Schwein pfeift!

The idea of a pig whistling is pretty ridiculous, and that’s where the phrase  – meaning “I think my pig whistles” – comes from. Germans use this expression when they can’t believe or grasp something, or to express that they are extremely surprised.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture.

The pig Rosalie stands on a farm in a pasture. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Hauke-Christian Dittrich

6. Meine Güte!

This straightforward phrase simply means “my goodness” and is a commonly used expression of astonishment.

7. Oha!

More of a sound than a word, this short exclamation will let the world know that you are shocked by something.

READ ALSO: Denglisch: The English words that will make you sound German

8. heilige Blechle!

Often when surprised or outraged, we might let slip an exclamation that refers to something sacred. This phrase fits into that bracket, as it means “holy tin box”. 

The peculiar expression comes from the Swabian dialect and refers to the cash box from which the poor were paid by the Church in the Middle Ages.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt.

The green house number nine which won an award for energy-efficient renovation and construction in Saxony-Anhalt. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Klaus-Dietmar Gabbert

9. ach du grüne Neune!

This slightly antiquated expression literally means “oh you green nine!”, or “oh, my goodness!” and is one you’re more likely to hear among the older generation of Germans.

The origin of the phrase is disputed. One explanation claims that it comes from the famous 19th century Berlin dance hall “Conventgarten” which, although it was located in Blumenstraße No. 9, had its main entrance in “Grüner Weg”. Therefore, the locals renamed it as “Grüne Neune” (Green Nine).

Another explanation is that the phrase comes from fairs where playing cards were used to read the future. In German card games, the “nine of spades” is called “green nine” – and pulling this card in a fortune telling is a bad omen.

10. Krass!

The word Krass in German is an adjective that means blatant or extreme, but when said on its own, it’s an expression of surprise. Popular among young Germans, it’s usually used in a positive way, to mean something like “awesome” or “badass”.